The devil’s advocates - Jawed Naqvi - December 16, 2010

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Paida hua vakeel to shaitaan ne kaha:
Lo aaj hum bhi sahib-i- aulaad ho gae!
(The day the lawyer was born in our midst
Satan became a father, and clenched his fist)

AKBAR Allahabdi`s barb at his own legal fraternity would be amusing, as he perhaps intended it to be, had most of the lawyers of the current generation not become a living nightmare for millions at the receiving end of an increasingly unjust legal system.

But for every devil`s advocate there is an Atticus from Harper Lee`s T o Kill a Mockingbird to fight for the rights of the beleaguered against a system that is ranged against them. There are those who work in India`s precarious democracy today and risk social and legal opprobrium as they take up the brief on behalf of equal and transparent justice.

That is true of Pakistan too. Though it`s still a fledgling — or should we say feudal — democracy, not known to be liberal about women, Asma Jehangir, a woman activist who has risked everything to defend the most marginalised Pakistanis, chiefly its religious minorities and women, was recently elected to head Pakistan`s apex bar council. Prashant Bhushan in India faces equal if not a more reactionary assault on his legal work against corporate fascism.But the names I mention are really a tiny minority that you could count on your fingertips. Increasingly, lawyers are tinkering with sacred covenants of social justice so as to subvert the constitutional pledge of the nation states they feign to defend. India`s Supreme Court had to intervene directly to goad bar councils across the country to not deny legal assistance to anyone in need, including those accused of the most heinous crimes.

The Supreme Court is of course only too sadly aware that it is in no position to bind any wayward lawyer to follow its fair strictures even if it concerns the question of a very fundamental right to legal defence. That lawyers in India are increasingly gravitating to the right-wing of the political spectrum reflects a social reality that works on a wider canvas than in a mere court of law.

The same social reality has much to do with a growing hold that big corporations have acquired over large swathes of national politics almost everywhere, not least in India. What could be more ironical than a petition filed by Ratan Tata, who heads one of India`s largest business houses, over a leaked telephone conversation that tells a story of its own?

Tata`s telephone conversation with his politically connected PR lady got tapped, when the woman, Niira Radia, was put under official surveillance for suspected financial irregularities involving big business — some reports say suspected espionage.

Tata has claimed that the publication of the tapes (and discussion in the media over what is clearly a political-corporate nexus, no matter howsoever much it is being stonewalled by the mainstream media) violates his right to life, which includes the right to privacy. He seeks to stay the publication of the 5,000 tapes that are gradually being transcribed and put out on media websites. The lawyer plotting his defence in the Supreme Court is India`s former solicitor general Harish Salve.

Mr Salve, one of India`s top lawyers has represented a balanced mix of political heavyweights and major corporations, including the Tatas and the Ambanis. He had a moment of epiphany on prime time TV the other day, when he showed the stuff he was made of. His outburst concerned Ajmal Kasab, prime accused in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks who has been sentenced to death in a trial court. “He should never have been tried by our civil courts. He should have been treated as a prisoner of war, and shot!!”

That a death sentence was not enough for a former solicitor general of the world`s largest democracy, that he would settle for nothing less than summary execution, says something about the political climate in India today. (As also about the leading lawyer`s notion that it is common practice to shoot prisoners of war.) There were several others on the panel that day. Arun Jaitley, senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader, Dilip Padgaonkar senior journalist, Kamal Mitra Chenoy professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Gen V.P. Malik, former chief of the army and of course the head of the TV channel and host of the show. Not one of them took issue with Harish Salve.

When Saddam Hussein was being hanged by a US-backed kangaroo court, a flurry of abuses was showered on him by his political foes who showed up to witness the macabre deed, which killing a fellow human always is no matter what the circumstances. Even Saddam Hussein`s American detractors had squirmed at the conduct of the so-called victors of the military standoff that hasn`t yet abated in Iraq.

Heckling a condemned man is grotesque. The former solicitor general was behaving like the leader of a lynch mob. Had he momentarily forgotten that the country, whose honour he thought he was protecting, was trying hard to portray itself as a mature nation which deserved a seat on the UN Security Council? Even by his own bizarre standards of nationalism, he did his country a great disservice.

When Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious edict to kill Salman Rushdie for apostasy he was reviled for advocating a barbaric principle no matter how much it may have been couched in religious precepts. However, now as the Julian Assange episode unravels a global conspiracy to cynically subdue and plunder the world, there is a flurry of Khomeini-like fatwas issued to assassinate the WikiLeaks chief. These edicts have come from higher political echelons of the US, which prides itself as the guardian angel of the rule of law. Akbar Allahabadi may not have anticipated the truth of his lighthearted assertion. But for the most part he seems to have been right.

The writer is Dawn `s correspondent in Delhi.

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